The departure of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander from Syria this month has led to some speculation in regional media that the Syrian regime is seeking to recalibrate its relations with Tehran. Two Saudi news outlets claimed that the officer was removed at the direct order of President Bashar Assad. According to the reports, in Al Arabiya and Al Hadath, the independent activities of the officer, in violation of Syrian sovereignty, led to the order for his removal.

An additional article by Lebanese commentator Ali Hashem at Al-Monitor purported to provide further details regarding the growing sentiment at the top of the regime against the Iranian presence.
According to Hashem, who quotes an unnamed source, Assad himself is cautious and wishes to avoid pressuring the Iranians to leave. A second camp wishes to take a firmer stance, intended to induce the Iranians “to accept that the war in Syria is over and there is no need for their presence.” This camp, according to Hashem’s source, includes the president’s wife, Asma, and the president’s younger brother, Maher.

The officer in question, Gen. Javad Ghafari, was appointed commander of the IRGC’s forces in Syria at the height of the civil war, in 2015. He replaced IRGC general Hossein Hamadani, who was killed in that year – the highest ranking Iranian commander to die in Syria.
Closer observation of events in Syria suggests that these claims should be treated with some skepticism. That Ghafari was deployed in Syria and has now departed is not in doubt. But the extent to which his departure reflects a Syrian effort to detach the regime from its Iranian patrons remains deeply open to question.

This is for two reasons: firstly, because the timing of the supposed expulsion fits perhaps a little too neatly with a current Arab diplomatic campaign to bring the Assad regime back to international legitimacy.
Secondly, and more importantly, because available evidence from the ground suggests no significant change in the Iranian deployment in Syria. Rather, the Iranians are continuing both in efforts to entrench their presence in the country, and in the cloaking of these efforts by weaving them into the deployments of the official Syrian Armed Forces.
The revelation of the commander’s departure came just days after the visit of UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Damascus. It was reported not in regime media outlets, but rather in Saudi media. The Emirati foreign minister’s visit to Damascus was the most visible step so far in an ongoing diplomatic campaign to end Syria’s isolation. The UAE has pioneered this effort, reopening its own Damascus Embassy as early as 2018. Other Arab states are on board. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are all engaged in this effort. READ MORE

Iran is not leaving Syria anytime soon

Josh Toupos

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